South Carolina lawmakers on Wednesday quashed a move to oust Gov. Mark Sanford over his summertime tryst and his use of state aircraft, say his embarrassing conduct was not serious enough to merit impeachment.
Lawmakers were still considering whether to recommend an official reprimand.
Six of the seven panel members said they believed the events surrounding Sanford's extramarital affair involving an Argentine woman did not rise to a high enough level to warrant his removal from office prior to the end of his second and final term in January 2011.
"We can't impeach for hypocrisy. We can't impeach for arrogance. We can't impeach an officeholder for his lack of leadership skills," said Rep. James Harrison, the Columbia Republican who headed the panel.
In a written statement released shortly after the vote, Sanford thanked the panel for its "deliberate and measured approach throughout the process" of the probe.
The governor said that he expects to be fully exonerated of allegations that he failed his state's taxpayers, calling any oversight regarding the use of funds "minor and technical in nature."
Sanford has been under scrutiny since June, when he tearfully revealed the affair. Ensuing probes of his travel and campaign spending have led to more than three dozen state ethics charges and the potential for $74,000 in fines.
Only eight U.S. governors have been removed by impeachment, and the only two removed in the last 80 years each faced criminal charges.
Technically, the outcome of Wednesday's vote will be sent as a recommendation to a full House Judiciary panel, which could revive an impeachment effort. However, that is unlikely given the margin of the vote.
The decision breathes new life into Sanford's remaining 13 months as governor, though he still faces further legislative votes on the official rebuke. He's also the subject of a State Ethics Commission hearing on more than three dozen civil charges involving his use of state planes, pricey commercial airlines seats and campaign money. The state attorney general is considering whether those accusations will lead to criminal charges.
The panel honed in on Sanford's trip to Argentina in June, debating how seriously to consider the governor's five-day absence during which his staff was led to believe he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Legislators pushing for impeachment sought to punish Sanford for bringing "extreme dishonor and shame" and contended he was derelict in his duty.
"We have a governor forsaking, abandoning, deserting his office. We have a premeditated, intentional act where he abandoned his office in the state," said state Rep. Greg Delleney, the Chester Republican who most vehemently pushed for impeachment. "He has lost all moral authority to lead this state."